Thursday, June 30, 2011

Frederic Bastiat

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850)
210 years ago today, Frederic Bastiat was born. Most famous for the broken window fallacy, and for years thought of as primarily an economic journalist, his under-appreciated economic theory has recently become more highly regarded. His great theoretical work is Economic Harmonies in which he reveals himself to be an earnest Christian economist and profound theorist. Early on in that work, he has a wonderful passage explaining why good economists must never shirk from their duties.

In the introduction he entitles, "To the Youth of France," Bastiat lays out the intellectual contest between economists and socialists. He identifies specific errors made by Ricardo and Malthus that socialists point to in an effort to turn political economy against itself. Bastiat could have rhetorically circled the wagons, justifying their errors by descending into mere politics. His devotion to truth, however, required another path.
I have already said that in Political Economy every erroneous proposition must lead ultimately to antagonism. On the other hand, it is impossible that the voluminous works of even the most eminent economists should not include some erroneous propositions. It is ours to mark and to rectify them in the interest of science and of society. If we persist in maintaining them for the honor of the fraternity, we shall not only expose ourselves, which is of little consequence, but we shall expose truth itself, which is a serious affair, to the attacks of Socialism.

A wise lesson for us all. The task of the economist is to get the analysis right, regardless of who is shown to be in error on a particular point. This is one of the great services the good economist provides to society.

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